World War II Begins

Benito Mussolini

After World War I Benito Mussolini organized right-wing political groups in Italy into the Fascist Party. The basic concept of fascism, as elaborated by Mussolini, was that the State was absolute before which individuals and groups were relative. After a series of riots in 1922 over widespread unemployment, King Victor Emmanuel, appointed Mussolini prime minister in an effort to avoid a communist revolution. The fascist state was a totalitarian government that controlled all political, economic and social activities of its people. Mussolini's ultimate goal was to restore the former glory of Rome.

Benito Mussolini

During his rule Mussolini pursued a vigorous foreign policy. The army nearly doubled in sizeā€”from 175,000 men to 275,00 men. He believed that a successful foreign policy would distract the population from the troubles at home. Mussolini wanted new territories to settle the surplus Italian population and he wanted to acquire new materials for industry. Mussolini first invaded Abyssinia in 1935. This was followed by the formation of Rome-Berlin Axis in November 1936. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) Mussolini also gave almost unlimited support to Franco. In 1940, Mussolini declared war on Britain and France. The Italian forces quickly met with defeat in their encounters with the Allied forces and suffered heavy losses in their invasion of Libya and East Africa.

Hitler's Germany pictured a vast, new empire of "living space" (Lebensraum) in eastern Europe. To accomplish German control of Europe, its leaders calculated, would require war.

After securing the neutrality of the Soviet Union (through the August 1939 German-Soviet Pact of nonaggression), Germany started World War II by invading Poland on September 1, 1939. Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany on September 3. Within a month, Poland was defeated by a combination of German and Soviet forces and was partitioned between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

German troops invade Poland

The relative lull in fighting which followed the defeat of Poland ended on April 9, 1940, when German forces invaded Norway and Denmark. On May 10, 1940, Germany began its assault on western Europe by invading the Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), which had taken neutral positions in the war, as well as France. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which provided for the German occupation of the northern half of the country and permitted the establishment of a collaborationist (a government that cooperated with the Germans) regime in the south with its seat in the city of Vichy.

German armor columns advance into Belguim

With German encouragement, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states in June 1940 and formally annexed them in August 1940. Italy, a member of the Axis (countries allied with Germany), joined the war on June 10, 1940.

From July 10 to October 31, 1940, the Nazis waged, and ultimately lost, an air war over England, known as the Battle of Britain. The Germans needed to control the English Channel to launch the invasion of England, code-named Operation Sea Lion. German invasion barges were scheduled to land on the beaches of Kent and Sussex but the invasion was on hold until the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) could gain control of the skies over British territory. The British Royal Air Force (RAF) used Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes while the Germans used Stuka dive bombers and Messcherschmidtt fighter planes.

Britain had RADAR which gave early warning of the approach of German planes. By the Spring of 1940, fifty-one radar bases had been built along the southern coast of Britain. There were also 1,000 Royal Observers who used binoculars to spot attacks.
From August 23 to September 6 the Germans bombed British cities during nighttime raids.British children were sent to live with strangers in the countryside. Residents of London and other major cities were awakened nightly by air raid sirens that warned of impending attacks. Thousands fled their homes to hide in the Underground (the subway) during the air raids. The first of the big air raids occurred on industrial sites in the East End of London. For the first few weeks the air raids occurred during the daylight hours but the Germans quickly resorted to night time attacks on the capital. The RAF had no planes that were effective at night fighting and the anti-aircraft guns used did not down many German fighters.

Air raids took place every night. German planes dropped hundreds of tons on explosives on London. Roads, railways, sewers, as well as, gas and water pipelines were destroyed. The Germans became very frustrated as the British repaired the damage quickly. Londoners became so accustomed to the bombings that they did not even leave their homes

The Battle of Britain

London Blitz

Battle of Britain

Winston Churchill

After taking over the Balkan region by invading Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6, 1941, the Germans and their allies invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. This was a direct violation of the German-Soviet Pact. In June and July 1941, the Germans occupied the Baltic States. The leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, turned to Britain and the United States for help. During the summer and autumn of 1941, German troops advanced deep in Soviet territory, but the Red Army (the Soviet Army) prevented the Germans from capturing major cities such as Leningrad and Moscow. The Red Army launched a counteroffensive in December 1941 that drove the Germans from the outskirts of Moscow permanently.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Forces of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan intended to cripple the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, then quickly overrun Thailand, Malaya, the Philippines, and the Netherlands East Indies. It would then complete its conquest of China, and unite all East Asia under Japanese domination in a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan had no plans for invading the United States mainland. The military leaders of Japan believed that the major world powers would ignore their aggression just as they had ignored German attacks in Europe. However, the awakened a "Sleeping Giant" when they attacked the United States. As a result of the unprovoked attack the United States declared war on Japan. In the following days, Germany and Italy also declare war on the United States as the military conflict widened.

Japanese forces bomb Pearl Harbor

In May 1942, the British Royal Air Force raided the German city of Cologne using a thousand bombers. This was the first time that the war reached German soil. For three years, the Allied forces bombed industrial plants and cities all over German occupied territory.

In July 1943, the Allies landed in Sicily and in September went ashore on the Italian mainland. King Victor Emmanuel forced Mussolini to resign and the military took over and negotiated a surrender to Allied Forces. German troops seized control of the northern half of the Italian peninsula, and continued to resist. Mussolini was rescued by German commandos and established a neo-Fascist puppet government (under German supervision) in northern Italy.

Allies Invade Italy

Invasion of Normandy

General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, made the decision to land hundreds of thousands of Allied troops on the coast of France in what was code-named "Operation Overlord".Allied planners had to make arrangements to transport all of these troops across the English Channel in a short period of time and still manage to surprise the Germans.

In the spring of 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe, had to make one of the most important decisions of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops, sailors, and airmen awaited his orders to begin Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe. Eisenhower had already delayed Overlord for a month and postponed other military operations to allow the Allies enough time to build and gather together the landing craft they needed. He now set a date, June 5, 1944.

The Allied planners knew they could not control the weather for D-Day Late on the evening of June 2, 1944, Eisenhower, his top generals, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met to review the weather forecast. The news was not good, D-Day, June 5, promised cloudy skies, rain, and heavy seas. Eisenhower decided to wait another day to see whether the forecast might improve. Less than 24 hours before the scheduled invasion Eisenhower gathered his advisers again. The forecast indicated that the rain would stop and there would be breaks in the clouds by mid-afternoon on June 5. Eisenhower decided to change the date for D-Day to June 6.

The D-Day operation of June 6, 1944 brought together the land, air and sea forces of the allied armies in what became known as the largest invasion force in human history. The operation delivered five naval assault divisions to the beaches of Normandy, France. The beaches were given the code names UTAH, OMAHA, GOLD, JUNO and SWORD. A great invasion force stood off the Normandy coast of France as dawn broke on 6 June 1944: 9 battleships, 23 cruisers, 104 destroyers, and 71 large landing craft of various descriptions as well as troop transports, and mine sweepers, the largest armada ever assembled.

Allied forces on D-Day

Allied troops land on Omaha Beach

It took six weeks for the Allies to secure the beachheads. By then, Allied troops had captured the French port of Cherbourg, allowing the Allies to advance into western Europe. Allied forces liberated Paris in August 1944, and by mid-September Allied forces had crossed the German border.

In December 1944, German troops launched a massive counteroffensive in the Ardennes Forest along the border of Belgium and Luxembourg. This battle was called the Battle of the Bulge. It began on the morning of December 16, 1944 and lasted until late January 1945. More than one million men fought in the battle. Hitler believed that this surprise offensive action would divide the British-American alliance. The temperatures in Belgium during January 1945 were the coldest ever recorded. Many man died from exposure to the cold. German troops wore white uniforms to blend in with the snow. The Germans temporarily broke through Allied lines, but only slowed the Allied invasion by about six weeks.

American soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge

Battle of the Bulge

Battle of the Bulge Color

On March 7, 1945 U.S. forces crossed the Rhine River. Stalin's troops were advancing from the east. On April 16 the forces of the Red Army launched a massive attack against the city of Berlin. The British and American forces halted their advance 60 miles west of Berlin in order to give the Soviets the opportunity to take the city.

"Friday, April 20, was Hitler's fifty-sixth birthday, and the Soviets sent him a birthday present in the form of an artillery barrage right into the heart of the city, while the Western Allies joined in with a massive air raid.
The radio announced that Hitler had come out of his safe bomb-proof bunker to talk with the fourteen to sixteen year old boys who had 'volunteered' for the 'honor' to be accepted into the SS and to die for their Fuhrer in the defense of Berlin. What a cruel lie! These boys did not volunteer, but had no choice, because boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, 'he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.' When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics. It appeared that the Nazis did not want the people to survive because a lost war, by their rationale, was obviously the fault of all of us. We had not sacrificed enough and therefore, we had forfeited our right to live, as only the government was without guilt. The Volkssturm was called up again, and this time, all boys age thirteen and up, had to report as our army was reduced now to little more than children filling the ranks as soldiers."

"The Soviets battled the German soldiers and drafted civilians street by street until we could hear explosions and rifle fire right in our immediate vicinity. As the noise got closer, we could even hear the horrible guttural screaming of the Soviet soldiers which sounded to us like enraged animals. Shots shattered our windows and shells exploded in our garden, and suddenly the Soviets were on our street. Shaken by the battle around us and numb with fear, we watched from behind the small cellar windows facing the street as the tanks and an endless convoy of troops rolled by... Dorothea von Schwanenfluegel

Benito Mussolini Executed
The Germans put up a strong defense but by April 24 the Soviet''s had the city surrounded. On April 30, Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun, took cyanide and shot himself. The German surrender was signed on May 7, 1945.

Germans surrender

"The Battle of Berlin, 1945," EyeWitness to History, (2002).

Information obtained from US